This hiking trail has a 1,200-year-old shelter and ‘is like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth’

a man stands in the natural caves at Charleston Lake Provincial Park Photo by Ontario Parks

At Charleston Lake Provincial Park, those exploring the Sandstone Island Trail will enjoy a beautiful trek, a chance to appreciate a 1,200-year-old shelter, and some of the province’s most unusual geology. Having hiked this loop myself, I can attest to what an incredible experience it is. Here’s what to know before you get ready for the trail.

How to visit

Charleston Lake Provincial Park is only 90 minutes south of downtown Ottawa. Backcountry, car, cabin, and yurt campsites are available, as are day permits (which cost about $10). In addition to hiking, this pretty park has excellent swimming, fishing, and canoeing.

Hikers have ample options

Charleston Lake Provincial Park is home to seven hikes which range from short, easy loops to difficult routes exceeding ten kilometres. The Sandstone Island Trail clocks in at 2.6 kilometres and is rated as moderately difficult. Trekkers can expect some steep inclines and narrow sections.

Is the Sandstone Island Trail actually an island?

You’re forgiven if you imagine that the Sandstone Island Trail is located on an island. Park staff told me that the “Sandstone Island Trail refers to a geologic feature. The “island” is an isolated block of sandstone, surrounded by, and standing above, older Precambrian rocks. This trail will take you along the bottom of the island, under the overhang, along the shoreline, and across the top of the Sandstone Island.”

What to expect on the trail

Geology fans, you’re in for a wild ride—and a fantastic hike. Claudette Weststrate, one of the directors of the Friends of Charleston Lake, says: “If you want to imagine the awe of entering Tolkien’s Middle-earth, hike the Sandstone Trail. It can truly be a transformative experience if you use your senses and take the time to absorb this ancient place”.

The gorgeous rock formations you see are exceptionally rare. As the Charleston Lake staff say: “Two geological eras come together on the trail where the conglomerate rock and sandstone (about 480 million years old), meet the Precambrian rock (about one billion years old). Such a contact area is called an ‘unconformity,’ and this contact accounts for a difference of more than a half-a-billion years between the layers. It is rare for an unconformity to be visible at the surface.”

Connecting with incredible history on the Sandstone Island Trail

As remarkable as Sandstone Island’s geology is, there’s something even more noteworthy about this trail: an amazing rock shelter. Evidence of a fire pit, bone tools, and pieces of pottery discovered at the shelter date it to 1,200 years. More modern finds, including a musket ball, gunflint, and metal buckle, have been assessed as 300 years old. Reflecting about the people who have called this shelter home during two different time periods is a moving experience, one that makes the Sandstone Island Trail a must-visit spot at Charleston Lake.

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